Fighting Fashionable Nonsense: Beyond the Hoax

‘Though it may wound the amour proper of some postmodernist humanities scholars to discover that a mere physicist could learn their jargon well enough, in a few months’ library research, to write a half-convincing simalcrum of it, that is, alas, exactly what happened.’

A lot has been written on this site about postmodernism, and especially its stylistic hallmarks: ambiguity over clarity, irony over actual humour, the buzzwords and red flags of management-speak. Deconstructionist writers portrayed themselves as radicals, often purporting to argue against capitalism or to support oppressed peoples. But as Nick Cohen pointed out, all they really offered was a dull satire of the ‘hegemon’. He quotes an American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum:

[R]esistance is always offered as personal, more or less private, involving no unironic, organised public action for legal or institutional change… It tells scores of talented young writers that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in the safety of the campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that’s available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy?

One of the few bad products of the 1960s social revolutions, postmodernism hit its peak in the nineties and was still staggering on by the time I did my postgraduate studies a few years back. In 1995 Alan Sokal, a physics professor from NYU, cracked. ‘I confess,’ he writes, ‘that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.’ He wrote a spoof postmodern article, lashing together the silliest quotations from renowned deconstructionists to create an intimidating and verbose but essentially meaningless essay.

Sokal submitted the finished article to a cultural studies journal, Social Text. He gave himself a 50/50 chance of having his piece accepted for the journal. The article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ was published by Social Text in April 1996. It was to become the most famous academic practical joke since the Dr Fox experiment.

In Beyond the Hoax Sokal reproduces the parody in all its ridiculous and derisive glory. The volume is worth buying for this essay alone: perhaps OUP could release it as a chapbook.

At first it’s hard going. You’ve got Sokal’s fake essay on the right-hand page, which is annotated on the left hand page; you’ve got Sokal’s parodic annotations which are also annotated. The result is a complex tesseract of a joke, almost like a postmodern essay in itself.

But unlike postmodern essays, Sokal’s hoax rewards your attention. He has an eye and flair for style that makes the satire work. Effortlessly he sends up the stock tones and phrases of academic prose: the ‘overwrought modesty’ in sentences like ‘It should be emphasised that this article of necessity tentative and preliminary; I do not pretend to answer all the questions that I raise.’ The lazy argumentative trick of throwing your opponent’s words back to them in quotemarks: ‘that these properties are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.’ Sokal notes that ‘reality (even physical reality) has become in certain circles a no-no concept, which must be placed in scare quotes.’

He buttressed the parody by flattering and quoting from Social Text editors, and with the use of unnecessary French-language quotations and pseudo-intelligent puns (‘Manifold Theory: (W)holes and Boundaries’). ‘I am very proud of this paragraph,’ Sokal says in one footnote (we can imagine him cackling away over the keyboard) but then he adds, ruefully, ‘this was the only instance in which I was inspired enough to produce such a perfectly crafted crescendo of meaninglessness.’ Sokal underestimates himself. The parody transcends its targets. It is a tour de force of bad writing, a Swiftean satire on pretension. You don’t have to be an academic (and I’m not) to laugh aloud while reading Sokal. There’s an underlying sensibility here, and it’s warm, wise and full of laughter.

After this we get several long essays on the hoax, in which Sokal discusses what the stunt proved and, perhaps more importantly, what it did not prove. He then goes on to discuss relativist and anti-Enlightenment thinking in the contemporary world. Some of these essays have dated better than others: the section on the worthless ‘Therapeutic Touch’ treatment, still included in nursing textbooks at time of writing, and the attacks on science and reason by ‘anti-imperialist’ thinkers in India, are fascinating and little known. However, the passage on postmodern ‘eco-radicals’ now seems laughably obscure; you would expect Sokal to acknowledge that today the main source of environmental pseudoscience is the climate change denial movement of the Right rather than the Left. Say what you like about today’s left, at least it acknowledges reason and evidence when they show us that we’re fucking up the planet.

Critics of this approach – Dan Hind is probably the most articulate – have suggested that postmodernism isn’t that important in the scheme of things and that defenders of Enlightenment values have a petty sense of priorities. In an interview with bookseller Mark Thwaite, Hind said this:

But politicians and businessmen have journalists killed when they stumble on a story, or simply when they are in the wrong place. Now it is not a subtle point, but it is worth making; post-modernists don’t kill journalists as part of their efforts to derail Western metaphysics…I wanted to reach people who get upset and angry about the threat posed to secular liberal society by religious fanatics, postmodernists and New Age crystal healers. I wanted to suggest that they were possibly being distracted from some other issues that are a sight more serious.

However, the fact is that pseudoscience can and does end life – particularly in Africa, where a monstrous double act of Vatican teaching on contraception and anticolonial conspiracy theory is killing the population with AIDS. The human cost of religious fundamentalism is spattered over our newscasts, daily. And patients with serious health conditions can die needlessly if they accept some of the wilder claims of New Age therapies to the extent that they reject actual medicine.

But Sokal is not content to laugh at obscure theorists. He is ‘far more profoundly worried by a society in which 21-32% [of the American people] believe that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the attacks of September 11.’ He explores the ways in which elites have to some extent abandoned universal standards of truth and reason, summed up best in this quote from an unnamed senior Bush adviser:

[You people] in what we call the reality-based community… believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.

The meaning of the term ‘reality-based community’ has been somewhat compromised by its repetition on 9/11 conspiracy websites, but this is still a chilling insight into the way that postmodernism has seeped into the strata of government. And we wonder why Bush cut off funding for family planning programmes in the developing world and wishes to hand America’s welfare state over to faith-based charities.

What Hind fails to understand is that this isn’t either or. In his powerful broadsides against the Bush administration, Sokal argues that ‘the kind of critical thinking useful for distinguishing science from pseudoscience might also be of some use in distinguishing truths in affairs in state from lies.’ Exactly. For how can we speak truth to power if we don’t know why truth matters?

Beyond the Hoax, Alan Sokal, Oxford University Press 2008

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